John Bellamy Foster: Capitalism and environmental catastrophe

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We need an ecological and social revolution. You may say that this is impossible, but the World Occupy Movement would have been declared impossible only a month ago.

From a talk by John Bellamy Foster, co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, at a teach-in on “The Capitalist Crisis and the Environment” at Occupy Wall Street, October 23, 2011. 

The problem we face when it comes to the appropriate response to impending climate catastrophe is not so much one of climate science — beyond understanding the environmental parameters in which we must act — as social science. It is an issue of social conditions and social agency.

We live in in a capitalist society, which means a society in which the accumulation of capital, i.e., economic growth carried out primarily on the terms of the 1 percent at the top (the ruling capitalist class), is the dominant tendency.

It is a system that accumulates capital in one phase simply so that it can accumulate still more capital in the next phase — always on a larger scale. There is no braking mechanism in such a system and no social entity in control.

If for some reason the system slows down (as it is forced to periodically due to its own internal contradictions) it enters an economic crisis. That may be good temporarily for the environment, but it is terrible for human beings, particularly the bottom portion of the 99 percent, faced with rising unemployment and declining income.

Overall, capitalism is aimed at exponential growth. It cannot stand still. The minimum adequate growth rate of the system is usually thought to be 3 percent. But this means that the economy doubles in size about every 24 years. How many such doublings of world output can the planet take?

Hence, there is a direct and growing contradiction between capitalism and the environment, a contradiction that becomes more and more apparent as the size of the capitalist economy begins to rival the basic biogeochemical processes of the planet.

Naomi Klein has rightly characterized the age we live in as “disaster capitalism” because of its dual economic and ecological crises — and due to the increasingly exploitative means the rich employ to enable them to prosper in the midst of increasing destruction.

What we need therefore is to change our economic culture. We need an ecological and social revolution.

We have all the technologies necessary to do this. It is not primarily a technological problem, because the goal here would no longer be the impossible one of expanding our exploitation of the earth beyond all physical and biological limits, ad infinitum.

Rather the goal would be to promote human community and community with the earth. Here we would need to depend on organizing our local communities but also on creating a global community — where the rich countries no longer imperialistically exploit the poor countries of the world.

You may say that this is impossible, but the World Occupy Movement would have been declared impossible only a month ago.

If we are going to struggle, let us make our goal one of ecological and social revolution — in defense of humanity and the planet.

[Full text on MRzine]